The dewdrop on a blade of grass: Satyajit Ray in conversation

To mark the centenary of Satyajit Ray’s birth on 2 May, we republish an edited version of an extended interview the great Indian director gave to Folke Isaksson for Sight & Sound in 1970.

Satyajit RayNemai Ghosh/Delhi Art Gallery

Folke Isaksson: Most great artists have one thing in common: childhood, and what happened in childhood, has meant a lot to them. Could you tell me something about your own starting point and background? 

Satyajit Ray: I don’t think I really began to function as an artist until after I left the University of Calcutta. I had honours in economics. Then I spent two and a half years in Santiniketan, [poet, social reformer and artist Rabindranath] Tagore’s university, and I consider those my most important formative years. I was studying painting, and this was the time when I had most leisure for contemplation, reading, looking at nature and getting to know people.

Everything started from that point onwards, my interest in films, etc. I had a strange kind of childhood. My father died when I was only two years old. We had a big place in North Calcutta: there was a big printing-press in the house, and a block-making establishment and book publishing, but everything went just completely phut.

There is something of this, I presume, in Charulata [1964]? 

Well, it was already there in the Tagore original [Ray’s film was based on Tagore’s 1901 novel Nastanirh], but since I had this peculiar background I was able to reproduce it. I was about six when we had to leave the place because the business went into liquidation, and my mother and I were stranded. We came to a maternal uncle’s house, and he gave us shelter.

This interview was originally published in our Summer 1970 issue

Was your family related to Tagore’s? 

Not related. My father knew him very well, my grandfather was a close friend. They were about of the same age. And it was Tagore himself who wanted me to spend some time at his university. I wasn’t particularly keen to leave Calcutta: I was too much of a city person, and Santiniketan was like a village, miles from nowhere. But then I found it did me a tremendous amount of good. The professors I studied under were great artists: not just painters, but really people with vision, with understanding, with deep insight.

Was Tagore a kind of mentor for you then? 

No, I couldn’t say that. With Tagore one had very little direct contact in Santiniketan. But certainly the other people who taught me were mentors in a way, and everything has gone into my films. Everything I learned there, nothing directly about films, but about art in general.

I read a tremendous lot. There was a good library, and I was reading not only about painting but about everything else – novels, Indian literature, Western literature, everything.

The Bengal cultural renaissance, which started about a century ago, has presumably meant a great deal to you.

It certainly seems to me a very significant period, although it doesn’t to some of the younger generation now. I don’t know, though, whether I feel part of a tradition; I’ve never consciously analysed that myself. I hope it shows in my work, whatever I feel.

Satyajit Ray as a child

Were there any politics in your home? 

Not very much; not in my uncle’s house. Music was very much in the air; it was all my aunts and uncles, they all used to sing. But it was essentially a non-intellectual family, and I didn’t develop as an artist there.

What were you doing just before the War? 

I was in Santiniketan then. I left the day the Japanese bombed Calcutta; I heard the news on the radio and felt I was much too cut off from events. I wanted to be in Calcutta, my mother was here. I left in the middle of my studies because I knew that I would go in for commercial art, not fine arts, which I was studying there.

And you had to go to commercial art for financial reasons? 

No, I was very interested in graphic design, because along with my fine arts studies I was reading books on graphics, book production, typography. I came back in December 1942, and in 1943 I was doing a job with a British agency. I joined as a kind of junior visualiser, a layout man, and I became art director in about five, six days.

I would like to know what Partition meant to you. 

Well, I consider that my life was not directly affected, because although my original home is supposed to be in East Pakistan, where my grandfather was born and my father lived for some time, I never lived there myself.

I’ve always felt that I belonged to Calcutta and West Bengal, except in a certain cultural sort of way, because I knew the culture of East Pakistan, the folk songs and stories. What really affected me and other people here in Calcutta was the spectacle of refugees, the refugees in the stations and on the streets, a terrible kind of gradual piling up of human life, one upon the other. 

What kind of films did you see before 1947 or so? 

There were fewer films in those days than now. My general habits didn’t include the local products, and it was mainly American films that I saw, before we started the Film Society in 1947. It was 90 per cent American films, with an occasional British one thrown in and sometimes a chance French or Italian picture.

What about the classics? Had you seen Eisenstein? 

We did get to see some Russian films, because the Russians were allies and they sent out things like the Maxim Gorky trilogy, Eisenstein’s films, some of Pudovkin’s. In fact, oh yes, that’s an important event… Pudovkin and [actor Nikolai] Cherkasov came to Calcutta in 1946 or ’47.

Before that I had seen Ivan the Terrible [1944], and I asked Cherkasov how he managed to get his eyes so wide open, because he had normal kind of small eyes, not deep set eyes. And he said, “Eisenstein made me do it.” He was slightly critical of the way he was handled by Eisenstein, made to assume postures that were very difficult, “so at the end of the day I would have muscle pains all over my body”.

So the personal contact meant something to the new Indian film: visits by Pudovkin… and Renoir, I suppose?

Renoir came later, in 1949. I had seen only American Renoirs: The Southerner [1945], This Land Is Mine [1943]. The Southerner seemed a remarkable film, very fresh, very unconventional, taking an American subject and giving it a kind of European colouring. The film was a very important experience for me, and the moment I discovered that Renoir was in town I went and looked him up.

What in your opinion were his qualities at that time? 

A feeling for nature; a deep humanism with a kind of a preference for the shades of grey, a sort of Chekhovian quality; and his lyricism and the avoidance of clichés. In one of the American films you have a scene of a fight, which is shot almost static, from one viewpoint.

Whereas normally you have cuts – the blows go this way, that way, cuts, intercuts – here is one big fight scene in a single shot taken from a normal viewpoint, nothing low, nothing too high up, no wide-angle, nothing. So that seemed like a remarkable thing, a perfect harmony of form and content.

What happened then, when these two people met: Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray?

I was full of admiration for him, and I looked up to him. Sometimes one is disappointed meeting an artist one admires, because as a person he turns out to be something you can’t warm to, can’t get close to. But Renoir was such a wonderful man: deep, gentle, humorous and full of wisdom… I went as many times as I could after my office, which would be around six o’clock in the evening.

He would have worked the whole day on the scenario of The River, and I would pester him with questions about his French films, which I hadn’t seen, and then I went location hunting with him. I knew the Calcutta suburbs and nearby villages, for I had already started going around on my own, taking train trips outside the city, because I had the making of Pather Panchali [1955] in mind.

Pather Panchali (1955)

Did you discuss your idea with Renoir? 

Yes. I said, this is a kind of a story, this is a kind of a situation, this is a kind of a family… and he said, “It sounds wonderful, make it, I think it will make a fine film.” 

I am certain that Italian neorealism meant a lot to you. When did you see your first Vittorio De Sica?

It was in 1950. I went to England to work in the head office of the Calcutta advertising agency. I was sent out for six months, and in the six months I was able to see 100 or 99 or 101 films, and the first film I saw there was Bicycle Thieves [1948]. It was in a double-bill at the Curzon with A Night at the Opera [1935].

It made a very, very interesting combination, but Bicycle Thieves… it just gored me. I was terribly excited, also, because I already had this idea of making Pather Panchali, but I wasn’t sure whether one could really work with an entirely amateur cast.

And here you had the proof. 

I had the proof. And it was all shot on location, at least 90 per cent shot on location. I had the proof that one could shoot out there, in all kinds of light. I had been told by professional directors here that you had to have control over the light, which meant you had to have artificial light. “You can’t control the sun” – that’s what they said. “And if you want rain, you have to create it artificially, because how could you control actual natural rain, it stops and goes and comes.”

When did you first feel that it was film you were going to make? 

It had been growing, but about 1946 or ’47 I felt that I had to make a film. Before that I had of course illustrated an edition of Pather Panchali, and the book had attracted me as a possible film source. Then about 1947 I started the film society, and in 1948 I developed a new hobby.

I was writing scenarios of films, based on books which had been acquired already for filming. Suppose I read in the papers that such and such a book has been bought and is being made into a film, I would write a scenario and later compare it with the treatment on the screen.

There are stories about you having to go to the pawnshop with your wife’s jewels, to be able to start Pather Panchali. Is there any truth in that?

It’s true. For one year I was trying to sell the scenario, to peddle it. I went to all the producers listed in Calcutta, everybody without exception, and since nobody would buy it, I decided to start anyway, because we wanted some footage to prove that we were not incapable of making films. So I got some money against my insurance policies. We started shooting, and that fund ran out very soon.

Then I sold some art books, some records and some of my wife’s jewellery. Little trickles of money came, and part of the salary I was earning as art director, because I still had my job. All we had to spend was on raw stock, hire of a camera, and our conveniences, transport and so on. But by the time we had shot about 4,000 feet there was no money left. I had nothing more to pawn.

Satyajit Ray on the set of Pather Panchali (1955)

And this was where the government of West Bengal came in? 

Not immediately. That was one year after our stopping. Because then we had given up hope, we told everybody, “This is as far as we can do, so goodbye and thank you” – but everybody was terribly unhappy. I still had my advertising job, but my mind was on the film.

But I took my mind off the film, and then at one point somebody said that we should approach the chief minister then, Dr Roy, and in a few days we heard that Dr Roy was anxious to see me and talk to me. And then it happened, it just happened…

You got what you needed, and the film was finished, and then comes the success story of Pather Panchali.

Well, they were at first not terribly anxious to release the film. It lay three months or so without being released. Then in the first two weeks of its run it didn’t do so well, but from the third week onwards there were full houses every day. We had what is known as fixed booking for six weeks, because that’s all that was available.

After those six weeks it was moved to another theatre, where it played for seven weeks more, and in those 13 weeks the government got back their money, and all that comes after is profit. They’ve made something like 1,500 per cent profit now, and there is still money coming all the time.

Have you written all your scripts yourself? 

All of them, yes. I can hardly call it writing. I’ve developed a special system, because my feeling is that writing a scenario is not a literary business at all, so I don’t waste literary effort on that. I merely write certain very laconic descriptions; mainly it’s all in sketches and with little notes on the dialogue and movements.

But literature seems to have been a starting point for you in several cases.

Oh yes. But these novels and short stories have all been considerably adapted. There is always something in the story that attracts me. It does not have to be the whole thing, but maybe certain crucial things which strike me as being filmic. I read the story many, many times, and then I shut the book and leave it.

Tell me one thing: the scene in The World of Apu [1959] with the hairpin [when Apu comes across his new wife’s hairpin by his pillow as he lies in bed watching her], was that written down or just created, alive?

That was written down. It was very important, and I gave a great deal of thought to it, because in Indian cinema you are not supposed to show kissing or close embraces or intimate love scenes, nothing of that sort, particularly not in 1958. But I wanted something that would suggest intimacy, the tenderness of married life, what it does to an erstwhile bachelor suddenly to have another pillow next to his own.

Suppose the wife is gone when he wakes up in the morning, and how can we suggest, without words, that he feels her presence close to him and that a change has come over his life? So here is the hairpin, something that could never possibly have been there six months ago, you see. That was well thought out, but sometimes of course such things arrive at the very last moment.

The World of Apu (Apu Sansar, 1958)

Is there much of an autobiographical element in the Apu trilogy?

Certainly not in the first and third parts, but in the second part maybe. Again, you must realise that the material evolved from the original book. Whatever is in the film is there in its germinal form already in the book. But in the second part I was able to identify with the adolescent Apu in his relationship with the widowed mother, because I was in the same position myself.

Of course I wasn’t living in a village, and I didn’t have to get away from my mother to study, but unconsciously, consciously, or subconsciously I was relating my own experience with Apu’s and was able, I think, to get into the psychological aspects of the thing quite a bit, beneath the skin.

How do you look upon the chief character in Jalsaghar [The Music Room, 1958], this landlord who loves music and gets destroyed by his passion?

It is a story about music, and it’s undeniable that the landlords, the zamindars, were great patrons of music. This landlord in the film is portrayed as a figure who is doomed, but before he dies out he has a kind of last flame. Of course I wanted the contrast with the nouveau riche, the money-lender who comes back and settles in the village, a big man with a big house, he being a man without culture, gross, and the zamindar being a man of refinement.

Is the music of your own composition, as in most of your films? 

No, that’s a more recent phenomenon, because right up to 1960 I was using other composers. I used Ravi Shankar in four films, and here the score was composed by Vilayat Khan, a sitar player who in my opinion is even greater than Ravi Shankar. He is a classical musician, whose father was attached to just such a zamindar, and these musicians are always grateful to the tradition, the patronage of landlords and noblemen. Vilayat Khan loved the film, and he didn’t see the point of feudalism dying out. He has great admiration for this character, and he

The Music Room (Jalsaghar, 1958)

What do you feel about a man working in a very different way from you? I am thinking of Godard, who starts working on a film with three pages on his knee.

Yes, but with the kind of film that he makes he doesn’t need a prepared, regular scenario, because one of his main purposes is to show the disjointedness of modern life, the lack of order, the lack of definite form, and you can only do that by breaking it up.

There must be a relation between form and content, almost an agreement?

I think so. Sometimes the form is dictated by a character, for example. When Truffaut made Jules et Jim [1962], lots of people talked about it as a very free style of editing. I think it all derived from the fact of the girl.

And Jeanne Moreau herself? 

Jeanne Moreau, and the character of Catherine. Unless Truffaut adopted that style, I don’t think the film could express the form so well. It couldn’t have been told in a conventional form.

Have you a feeling for Ingmar Bergman? 

Yes, I do admire him. He is a tremendous craftsman, he has got a wonderful team of actors, who can do anything he wants them to, and he’s got a sense of drama, which probably derives from his constant work in the theatre. As a director I find him fascinating, although I can say that I am not at all times in sympathy with what he says. I don’t care for his preoccupations, they are not very important preoccupations to me, certain things about religion and…. His preoccupations are not mine, but the fact remains that he can hold me.

What about Dreyer? Do you find him too slow? 

I don’t mind slow films. Sometimes I’m irritated by slowness, but I don’t think slowness per se is a fault, because there is slow music, there is fast music… what is difficult is to control. It’s much more difficult to make a successful slow film. But I find Dreyer a little too sparse, a little too austere at times. I could wish for a little… maybe humour here and there.

And Buñuel? 

Unfortunately I have not seen the best. I’ve seen The Exterminating Angel [1962], which I think is quite brilliant. At every point you suspect it’s going to collapse, but somehow he manages to create conviction and carry you on… I met Buñuel, incidentally, two years ago. We were staying in the same hotel in Acapulco. For about 15 days he and I were the first to arrive at the breakfast table. He is a very early riser, like me. Very interesting to talk to. He was a tremendous admirer of Pather Panchali.

But he can’t hear? 

Very deaf and very anti-Godard, I found him. He said, “I’ll give him two years more, he is just a fashion.” 

We talked about Jalsaghar. What about your own relation to music?

Music was my first love. Ever since my schooldays I developed a tremendous interest, which has been growing and growing, in the Western classical music. And then came our own classical music. So I started to build up a record collection. I would buy the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony this month, and the second movement the second month, the third movement the third month, like that, for the little pocket money I had.

Ray composed several of his own scores

Do you still live with Beethoven? 

Not Beethoven any more really, except maybe some chamber music, but Bach is always there, and I am also extremely fond of Mozart. I play his operas and choral works quite a bit now. And baroque, mainly Scarlatti, Rameau, Couperin, the early baroque, things like Schutz and Palestrina. Even Gregorian chants and Monteverdi, things like that more and more. Some modern musicians. I like Bartok’s chamber music very much, his quartets.

Something that you don’t like at all? 

Well, I can’t bear some of the romantics, like… some of Schumann, some of Schubert. The romantic stuff bores me.

Do you think the movies you’ve made up till now have been understood in the West?

The best reviews of my films have been published in the West.

But there may have been significant misunderstandings? 

Oh, there have been meanings imputed and interpretations given which never had anything to do with my intentions, but some of it has been most penetrating. I have been amazed by the amount of penetration in the reviews of a thing like The Goddess, which deals with superstition and very Oriental aspects of metaphysics and religion. And yet a tremendous lot of perception. One of the best reviews of Charulata appeared in the West, in Sight and Sound.

Are you religious? Do you believe that God created Man, or that Man created God?

My own feeling is that Man created God. But you see, there is always this mystery about the beginning of life, and I like to think back and back and take my mind back right to the beginning of time. But I don’t think that God is a useful thing to believe in, I don’t see the necessity of that at all.

I think it’s more important now, in view of what has been happening, to believe in scientific knowledge. I don’t disbelieve in things like spiritualism or seances or planchettes or extrasensory perception…

They could be explained by science, you mean? 

I think at some point they are going to be; I think all this could be explained, though maybe it will take a very, very long time. I have been reading a great deal about dreams, about memories, about ESP and rebirth and memory of a previous birth and all that, and I can’t brush it all aside.

Charulata (1964)

Do you think the artist should stand aloof, or be committed? 

Unless one lives isolated from the general picture of life, a certain amount of commitment is unavoidable. But as an artist I never want to be a propagandist, because I don’t think anybody is in a position to give definite, final answers to social problems.

No propaganda works really, because… I’ll tell you something Renoir said to me once: “There are lots of anti-war films being made; I made what is generally considered as the most humane anti-war film, La Grande Illusion, in 1938, and in 1939 the war broke out.”

Then later he made another anti-war film, Le Caporal Epingle [The Elusive Corporal, 1962].

Yes, more remote. Did it work? It doesn’t work. I like to present problems and make the public conscious of the presence of certain social problems and let them think for themselves. But a certain taking of sides is unavoidable, if you have strong sympathies of your own.

So in a sense you are committing yourself; but I don’t think it’s necessary, important or right for an artist to provide answers, to say “This is right and this is wrong.”

Gandhi or Nehru, who is the greater man to you? 

I was closer to Nehru, I think. I admired Nehru, I understood him better, because I am also in a way a kind of product of East and West. A certain liberalism, a certain awareness of Western values and a fusion of Eastern and Western values was in Nehru, which I didn’t find in Gandhi.

But of course as a man, as a symbol, in contact with India’s multitude, he was quite extraordinary. But as a man… I always understood what Nehru was doing, as I understood what Tagore was doing – because you can’t leave Tagore out of this, it’s a triangle.

This fusion you mentioned, within Nehru and within yourself, have you felt that as a strength, or as both a strength and a weakness?

As a strength, all along. But you have to have the backing of your own culture. Even when I made my first film the awareness was there. I had a Western education, I studied English, but more and more over the last ten years I have been going back and back to the history of my country, my people, my past, my culture.

What is the best in your own tradition? 

Instead of saying ‘the best’, let us say ‘what is characteristic’. Well, think of starting from the Sanskrit classics: the tremendous closeness to nature, even in the Upanishads and Vedas, and a profound kind of philosophy… the presence of the neutron, the atom, the whole idea of the universe being also in a little point, as well as around and all over you, the universe being contained…

I’ll tell you a story here. In 1928, when I was seven, I went with my mother to Tagore’s university. I had my little autograph book, newly bought, and my mother gave the book to Tagore and said, “My son would like a few lines of verse from you.” And he said, “Leave the book with me.” Next day I went to collect it, and he brought it out and said: “I have written something for you, which you won’t understand now, but when you grow up you will understand it.”

It’s one of the best things he ever wrote in a small manner, and what it means is this: “I have travelled all round the world to see the rivers and the mountains, and I’ve spent a lot of money. I have gone to great lengths, I have seen everything, but I forgot to see just outside my house a dewdrop on a little blade of grass, a dewdrop which reflects in its convexity the whole universe around you.”

And this dewdrop is in the Indian tradition? 

This is Indian tradition. It’s very, very important. The presence of the essential thing in a very small detail, which you must catch in order to express the larger thing; and this is in Indian art… in folk-poetry, in folk-singing. This is the essence, I think.

Satyajit Ray

So the essence is an enormous combination of the cosmic and the microscopic?

Yes, and this is becoming more and more clear to me. I recently bought a book with a whole series of pictures of electron-microscope photographs of points, pin-points of this and that, maybe a little piece of alga, a piece of protoplasm or the head of a thing, and the patterns that it reveals, it goes right back to the Upanishads… I don’t know what a maybe 2,000 times more powerful microscope is going to show… how far life extends in the cellular form.

I think this awareness of the cellular form is in the early classics… and I think of works of art as being cellular, as being little nodes, little molecules which connect up in details and also in a total conception of the general form and a conception of the detail, in a density, a richness, which a lot of Westerners also have.

It could hardly be in works of social realism. 

No, because then you start with something else. You start with a conclusion, whereas in my case, when I write an original story, I start with characters and they develop the plot by their own truth and volition. This is the opposite of Hitchcock. Hitchcock already has a pattern, and he puts in two-dimensional characters.

With me it’s different, and I’m sure with Renoir, with Chekhov. I have learned from these people a great deal. I have learned as much from my own classics as from these people, whom I greatly admire. But in my case I start with characters and I find that I don’t know what the ending is going to be like, until I have conceived a good part of it and find how they are reacting against each other. I place two characters and watch them reacting, and as far as my knowledge goes I proceed along the lines of truth, and there develops a story.

Further reading

Soumitra Chatterjee was Satyajit Ray’s bona fide Bengali

From his breakout as the grown-up Apu in Satyajit Ray’s great trilogy, Soumitra Chatterjee – who has died of Covid–19 complications aged 85 – channelled the Indian filmmaker’s emotional authenticity across another 13 films, and acted in over 200 in total.

By Andrew Robinson

Soumitra Chatterjee was Satyajit Ray’s bona fide Bengali

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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